The manufacturers of violent video games are under fire in the courts and from Congress for being partially responsible for the recent spree of teenage shootings.
When representatives of the video-game industry recently gathered in Los Angeles for the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, as it is widely known, exhibitors were caught between crowing over the huge financial growth of the industry, which hauled in $6.3 billion in 1998, or eating crow about the alleged link between violent computer and video games and teen violence.
If little more than a decade has passed since the innocent game of computer table tennis known as "Pong" first captured the hand-eye reflexes of millions of Americans, these days the menu for computer-game entertainment resembles that of an out-of-control, all-you-can-eat buffet, with a few choice selections to bring in the crowds, a lot of filler in the middle and some decidedly rotten stuff around the edges.
Throw into the mix a $100 million lawsuit filed by attorney Mike Breen, who is representing the surviving families of three students killed by Michael Carneal, a 14-year-old Paducah, Ky., high-school student who by all accounts was obsessed with violent video games, opening fire on his classmates on Dec. 7, 1997. Add the recent hearings on this issue convened on Capitol Hill by Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, and it's little wonder that members of the games industry are squirming in their seats.
Brownback described some of the games in a speech on the Senate floor: "The video game `Quake' put out by Midway Games and ID Software, the same company as the producer of `Doom' consists of a lone gunman confronting a variety of monsters. For every kill, he gets points. As he advances in the game, the weapons he uses grow more powerful and more gory -- he trades in his shotgun for an automatic and later gets to use a chain saw on his enemies. The more skilled the player, the gorier the weapons he gets to use. Bloodshed his reward. Quake sold more than 1.7 million copies its first year out. This may seem over-the-top, but they are among the more popular games around. One survey of 900 fourth through eighth graders found that almost half the children said their favorite electronic games involved violence."
The lawsuit filed by Breen in April is starting to wend its way through the courts. "Michael Carneal clipped off nine shots in about a 10-second period" says Breen. "Eight of those shots were hits. Three were head and neck shots and were kills. That is way beyond the military standard for expert marksmanship. This was a kid who had never fired a pistol in his life, but because of his obsession with computer games had turned himself into an expert marksman."
Ironically, it was Carneal's defense that may have provided the legal standing for the court challenge. "When Michael Carneal was charged with murder they brought in one of the foremost adolescent psychiatrists in the country -- not to get him out from under what he did but to try and get the families to agree to a lesser sentence. What Dr. Diane Schetky did was find a causative role between the computer video games that Michael was playing and the crime he
committed" says Breen.
Among those whose voices have risen to damn the computer-game industry for recklessness is Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former professor of psychology at the U.S. Military Academy, who taught a course that analyzed the psychology of killing. He says of some of the games, "They are murder simulators which over time teach a person how to look another person in the eyes and snuff their life out."
Grossman, who hafts from Jonesboro, Ark., where in March 1998 four high-school girls and their teacher were gunned down by two boys under the age of 14, says: "I spent the first three days after the tragedy at Westside Middle School, where the shootings took place, working with the counselors, teachers, students and parents. …